Testing the foundations of teen tech panics

ABC Radio National’s technology and society programme Future Tense has a good discussion of how much evidence supports popular fears about young people and technology.

It’s got some great comments from the always insightful Danah Boyd about how restrictions on the physical freedom of young people through fears about safety have led to increasing socialisation online.

Interestingly, the inflated fears that stop children from playing in the street have also been projected online, way beyond the actual dangers.

The programme also tackles the myth that ‘digital natives’ grow up with some sort of intimate knowledge of techology when, in reality, their knowledge varies wildly leaving a clear need for education and support.

Link to ‘Young people and technology: fear and wellbeing’

In solitary

The new edition of the APA Monitor magazine has an article that discusses the psychological impact of solitary confinement in light of its growing use in American prisons.

One of the most interesting points is that evidence for the effect on solitary confinement on prisoners is actually quite limited due to difficulties studying incarcerated people.

Prisoners in administrative segregation are placed into isolation units for months or years. Corrections officials first turned to this strategy in response to growing gang violence inside prisons, Dvoskin says. Though critics contend that administrative segregation has never been proven to make prisons safer, use of this type of confinement has continued to rise. That’s worrisome to most psychologists who study the issue. Deprived of normal human interaction, many segregated prisoners reportedly suffer from mental health problems including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression, Haney says (Crime and Delinquency, 2003)…

However, much of the evidence of harm comes from cross-sectional studies or research done on people who are not in prison, such as the isolated elderly. Designing a long-term study to follow prisoners in solitary confinement is challenging. Each correctional system is unique, inmates move in and out of segregation, and many states prohibit or limit psychological studies of incarcerated individuals due to ethical concerns.

Most of our evidence, it turns out, comes from other people deprived of human contact, although the effects have been found to almost universally unpleasant until now.

Link to article ‘Alone, in the hole’ (via @ResearchDigest)

The rise and fall of Dark Warrior epilepsy

Of all the names for a neurological disorder in the history of medicine, the most awesome has got to be ‘Dark Warrior epilepsy’.

The condition was reported in a 1982 edition of the British Medical Journal and was so named because the patient had seizures – but only while playing the Dark Warrior video game.

The game was actually a coin-up arcade machine and, despite the dodgy graphics, it is notable for being one of the first machines with an attempt at simulated speech.

The patient was a 17-year-old girl whose father was a video game engineer. He fixed the arcade machines and so she got to play for free.

Curiously, the case report mentions that she had already mastered Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Lunar Rescue.

Old skool video game freaks will be reading this and quietly thinking to themselves, respect, but the more medically inclined might be scratching their heads wondering why a patient’s video-gaming history has been included in their case report.

I mean, I ruled at Elite, but it’s never been mentioned in my medical notes.

The reason, is that only year before, the first ever case of epilepsy triggered by a video game was reported. It was named ‘Space Invader epilepsy’ because it was triggered by the arcade game Astro Fighter and the neurologist clearly didn’t know the difference between the original arcade classic and one of the cheap knock-offs.

The 17-year-old girl from Bristol, however, wasn’t troubled by Space Invaders, nor a host of other video games. She played them all with no problems at all. It was only Dark Warrior that affected her brain and, in fact, it was only a very specific scene in the game that contained a bright multicoloured flashing sequence.

The doctors treating the girl thought it was worth sending the case to a medical journal because video games were still very new in 1982.

But despite using the name ‘Dark Warrior epilepsy’ for this particular case they came up with another name – almost as awesome – for similar seizure disorders: ‘electronic space war video game epilepsy’

They then wrote what can only be described as one of neuroscience’s great paragraphs:

The term Space Invader epilepsy is, in fact, a misnomer, since no cases have been reported with the Space Invader video game itself. We suggest, therefore, that Astro Fighter and Dark Warrior epilepsy be classified under “electronic space war video game epilepsy” and this as a special category of photoconvulsive epilepsy. Video games other than space war games – for example, Super Bug and Munch Man – appear to be less epileptogenic. Electronic space war video game epilepsy has yet to be reported with Defender, Space Fury, Lunar Rescue, or Asteroids war games.

At the time, there was much media panic about ‘video games causing epilepsy’ but the real story is actually far more interesting.

Neurology nowadays doesn’t talk about specific game titles but it still considers the effect of video games on the likelihood of triggering seizures.

Firstly, let’s make it clear that video games don’t cause epilepsy, but the reason people can have seizures while playing is not because of the video game per se, but because of a type of neurological disorder called reflex epilepsy that can be triggered by idiosyncratic features of the environment.

The most well-known and most common is photosensitive epilepsy where certain types of flashing lights can cause a seizure. About 5 in every 100 people who have epilepsy have this type.

But actually, reflex epilepsy is very diverse. Some people will have seizures triggered by certain smells, or certain patterns, or certain emotions, or certain tunes, or even doing certain sort of problem-solving – like mental calculation.

Some of the early cases of computer-triggered epilepsy were caused by certain flash sequences in games, which are now not included by common consent.

Occasionally video-game linked seizures do still appear though, but largely because the game happens to have a characteristic which coincides with the trigger of someone’s pre-existing reflex epilepsy. Maybe a specific sequence of musical notes, or a certain pattern, or even causing a specific feeling of frustration.

But sadly, neither ‘Dark Warrior epilepsy’ nor ‘electronic space war video game epilepsy’ caught on and the medical literature now largely talks about ‘video game-induced seizures’.

Link to 1982 case of Dark Warrior epilepsy.

Neurological knitwear

One of the disappointing things about the upcoming US presidential elections is that none of the potential candidates has promised the people a made-to-order knitted brain hat. Fear not though, as citizens can now order their own.

Etsy user Anabananna hand knits the woolly neuroogical headgear to your specification and ships them to you.

You can even have a green one if your rockin’ that zombie brain knitwear vibe this season (and who isn’t?)

Link to woolly brain hat (thanks @CandiceGordon)

BBC Future column: Does the internet rewire your brain?

My column for BBC Future from a few days ago. The original is here. Mindhacks.com readers will have heard most of this before, thanks to Vaughan’s coverage of the Baroness and her fellow travellers.

Being online does change your brain, but so does making a cup of tea. A better question to ask is what parts of the brain are regular internet users using.

This modern age has brought with it a new set of worries. As well as watching our weight and worrying about our souls, we now have to worry about our brain fitness too – if you believe the headlines. Is instant messaging eroding the attention centres of our brains? Are Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools preventing you from forming normal human bonds? And don’t forget email – apparently it releases the same addictive neurochemicals as crack cocaine!

Plenty of folk have been quick to capitalise on this neuro-anxiety. Amazon’s virtual shelves groan with brain-training books and games. (I confess I am not entirely innocent myself). You can fight the cognitive flab, these games promise, if you work that grey matter like a muscle.

But is this true? Are sudoku puzzles the only thing stopping the species turning into a horde of attention-deficient, socially-dysfunctional, email addicts – part human, part smartphone?

Fear not, there is some good news from neuroscience. But first, it is my duty to tell you the bad news. You may want to put down your phone and take note, this is the important bit.

The truth is that everything you do changes your brain. Everything. Every little thought or experience plays a role in the constant wiring and rewiring of your neural networks. So there is no escape. Yes, the internet is rewiring your brain. But so is watching television. And having a cup of tea. Or not having a cup of tea. Or thinking about the washing on Tuesdays. Your life, however you live it, leaves traces in the brain.

Brain workout


Worrying about the internet is just the latest in a long line of fears society has had about the changes technologies might bring. People worried about books when they first became popularly available. In Ancient Greece, Socrates worried about the effect of writing, saying it would erode young people’s ability to remember. The same thing happened with television and telephones. These technologies did change us, and the way we live our lives, but nothing like the doom-mongers predicted would stem from them.

But is the internet affecting our brains in a different, more extraordinary way? There is little evidence to suggest harm. Here we are, millions of us, including me and you, right now, using the internet, and we seem okay. Some people worry that, even though we cannot see any ill-effects of the internet on our minds, there might be something hidden going on. I am not so worried about this, and I’ll tell you why

We regularly do things that have a profound effect on our brains – such as reading or competitive sports – with little thought for our brain fitness. When scientists look at people who have spent thousands of hours on an activity they often see changes in the brain. Taxi drivers, famously, have a larger hippocampus, a part of the brain recruited for navigation. Musicians’ brains devote more neural territory to brain regions needed for playing their instruments. So much so, in fact, that if you look at the motor cortex of string players you see bulges on one side (because the fine motor control for playing a violin, for example, is only on one hand), whereas the motor cortex of keyboard players bulges on both sides (because piano playing requires fine control of both hands).

So practice definitely can change our brains. By accepting this notion, though, we replace a vague worry about the internet with a specific worry: if we use the internet regularly, what are we practicing?


Get a life


In the absence of any substantial evidence, I would hazard a guess that the majority of internet use is either information search or communication, using email and social media. If this is so, using the internet should affect our brains so that we are better at these things. Probably this is already happening, part of a general cultural change which involves us getting better and better at dealing with abstract information.

Internet use would only be a worry if it was getting in the way of us practicing some other life skill. If Facebook stopped people seeing their friends face to face that could have a harmful effect. But the evidence suggests this is not the case. If anything, people with more active internet lives have more active “meat-space” lives. Most of us are using the internet as a complement to other ways of communicating, not as a substitute.

So there is no magic extra risk from the internet. Like TV before it, and reading before that, it gives us a way of practicing certain things. Practice will change our brains, just like any habit. The important thing is that we are part of this process, it is not just something that happens to us. You can decide how much time you want to put into finding pictures of funny cats, bantering on Facebook or fitting your thoughts into 140 characters. There will be no sudden damage done to your brain, or great surprises for your brain fitness. You would be a fool to think that the internet will provide all the exercise your brain needs, but you would also be a fool to pass up the opportunities it offers. And those pictures of funny cats.

The return of All in the Minds

The two best psychology and neuroscience radio shows, both confusing called All in the Mind, have just started new series in the last couple of weeks.

BBC Radio 4’s programme, which takes more of a magazine format featuring several topics each week, has just kicked off with a programme about stress, humour and discussing personal mental health issues.

On the other side of the wires, ABC Radio National’s programme has begun with an edition on the genetics of mental illness and one on self-harm. I really recommend the genetics programme, by the way, as it takes a fresh look at the whole concept.

Both come highly recommended so do tune in your wireless. Or click your mouse. Whichever is easiest.

Link to BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind
Link to ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind